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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Bob Pugh was co-founder, first executive director for former CIAU

By Martin Cleary

Mention the name of the late Bryan Murray and Ottawa sports fans immediately remember the Shawville, Que, native as the former head coach and general manager of the Ottawa Senators for nine years.

But did you know there was a time when Murray attended and graduated from McGill University and played for the football and hockey teams in the early 1960s?

In those days, Murray was coached by Bob Pugh, who also was the athletic director on the Macdonald College campus linked to McGill.

“I also had the opportunity to work with him (Pugh) as an assistant athletics director and hockey coach on the Macdonald campus,” Murray said a number of years ago. “I remember the discipline, behaviour, work ethic and respect that all of his student-athletes were expected to show and in return were shown.”

Pugh, who helped create and lead the first Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union (now U Sports), passed away June 2. He was 93.

Pugh’s wife Thora, who earned a teaching certificate at Macdonald and went on to be the first woman councillor in Pakenham and its first deputy reeve, passed away June 15. She was 89. A visitation will be held for Bob and Thora on Saturday at the Almonte Civitan Centre from 1 to 4 p.m.

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“Bob was a classy, respectful man, who expected each of us to conduct ourselves as good representatives of the school and team. I remember the effort he put into his responsibility as the coach and athletic director,” Murray added.

“I know that exposure to Bob had a huge influence on my career. The treatment and respect I received allowed me to better understand how athletes should be treated. I have tried to follow that code with my teams.”

Born in Verdun, Que., and a graduate of Springfield College with a science degree in 1950, Pugh was dedicated to his job as Macdonald College’s athletics director on the Ste.-Anne-de-Bellevue campus from 1955-69.

Unlike today, when the athletic director is focused strictly on administrative work, Pugh added to his schedule by coaching the Macdonald hockey team for 14 years and the football team for nine seasons. He also served as president of the Ottawa-St. Lawrence Athletics Association.

His leadership on the university level at Macdonald played a significant role in Pugh being a guiding light on the national stage.

By 1971, Pugh was part of a team that founded the CIAU, which served as the umbrella group to oversee all university varsity sports in Canada. Pugh also became the first executive director of the Ottawa-based CIAU and served in that position for 20 years until his retirement.

Inducted into the McGill University Sports Hall of Fame in 1969, Pugh played a role in many landmark decisions for university sports.

He was part of a committee that transformed the Canadian College Bowl, which started in 1965, into the Vanier Cup national football championship in 1982. The Vanier Cup was and is today the national body’s most cherished property.

Pugh also was involved in the controversial issue of athletic scholarships for student-athletes. Knowing something needed to be done to avoid the drain of Canadian student-athletes to the United States but not wanting the troubles that occasionally surrounded their neighbours’ scholarship scandals, the issue almost tore apart the CIAU.

The Western Canada and Atlantic universities were in favour of athletic scholarships, but it was greatly frowned upon by the Ontario and Quebec associations.

Athletic scholarships were narrowly approved one year. But the CIAU slammed on the brakes, when Ontario and Quebec universities threatened to withdraw from the CIAU unless there was a one-year moratorium.

After one year passed, a firm decision on athlete financial awards hadn’t been reached. But Pugh, who was chair of the committee studying the awards issue, never lost hope about implementing athletic scholarships.

“While our committee has not yet reached our mandate of a common ground for coexistence between schools that will offer scholarships and those that will not, we feel nonetheless that something can be worked out,” he said at the time.

Athletic scholarships are now part of the Canadian varsity sport experience, covering tuition, books and mandatory fees, but not accommodation.

During the late 1970s, skyrocketing air travel costs were straining university athletic budgets and schools had to make cuts to some sports.

“Even the status quo was in jeopardy,” Pugh said. “So, the CIAU decided to approach Sport Canada with the concept of travel equalization grants.”

At the time, universities in the Canada West, Great Plains and Maritimes divisions were suffering the most as air travel costs increased by 87 per cent over a three-year period.

Sport Canada responded by giving the CIAU a travel equalization grant worth close to $500,000, which would be used strictly for interprovincial competitions and the universities had to remain committed to intercollegiate sports.

“We feel it is a real achievement in itself for the CIAU members to reach this kind of agreement,” Pugh added, “because schools in Quebec and Ontario, who definitely have their own travel problems, willingly waived assistance for the time being. They recognized that the regions selected for the grants require more urgent measures than they do.”

During Pugh’s time, the CIAU also welcomed the Canadian Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Union under its wing. The amalgamation allowed one national body to govern university sports. Pugh said duplication of services would be eliminated and it would be easier for the CIAU to connect with government agencies, national sports associations and the private sector.

Away from the sports venues, Pugh also served for 20 years on the Lanark County School Board and 12 years on the Almonte Hospital Board. He was part of a group that oversaw the building of the Pakenham Arena.

A former provincial Liberal candidate, Pugh was dedicated to his party. While his name may have been mainly associated with university sports, he was a well-rounded man.

As his obituary said: “Bob’s positive outlook, sense of social responsibility and a strong work ethic took him important places, won him many accolades and earned him the respect of the people who worked or volunteered with him. (There’s also) teaching, coaching, career reinvention, politics, sports ethics, sheep farming, housebuilding, resort management, everything B&B, and so much more.”

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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